The Dirty Dozen Brass Band didn’t fool around when it celebrated its 40th anniversary at the Joy Theater in December. No warm up was necessary as the group got the party rolling with its signature rhythm and blues, funk and jazz going down on top of street beats. On stage were Dirty Dozen veterans baritonist/vocalist Roger Lewis, trumpeter/vocalist Gregory Davis, sousaphonist Kirk Joseph and tenor saxophonist/vocalist Kevin Harris plus drummer/vocalist Julian Addison, guitarist Takeshi Shimmura and trombonist TJ Norris. Soon past members and friends such as drummer Terence Higgins, bassist George Porter Jr., keyboardist Ivan Neville and trombonist Big Sam Williams joined the musical fray. Original Dirty Dozen drummer Benny Jones stepped up bringing his Treme Brass Band in for the fun.
Now buckjumping into its 41st year, the Dozen continues its original mission of integrating the many stylistic interests of its band members while maintaining its love of New Orleans music and its brass band and jazz traditions.
Four decades bring a lot of changes and memories as well as a ton of music. Here the four vets of the Dirty Dozen share their remembrances when asked similar questions primarily dealing with the more recent past. They thoughtfully offer bows to the new members of the band and their contributions to its unique sound.
These men have had some remarkable experiences. So let’s hear it from the guys whose talent and forward-thinking influenced the next generation of New Orleans brass bands and took their music from this city’s streets to around the globe.
Over the last 40 years, there have naturally been many changes in the Dirty Dozen. What have been the most significant ones in more recent decades?
Roger Lewis: Probably adding a trombone player—the band has gone through a lot of changes [in instrumentation]. Not only him but drummer Julian Addison, he’s been with us for four years now and we have a Japanese guitar player, [Takeshi] Shimmura. Well, like when you get a younger player in the band like Julian, he has so much energy and he’s like a sponge so he just soaks up everything. He’s not only a great drummer but he understands music very well. So there’s a different energy, so it’s like you’re re-inventing yourself every time you have a new player in the band because they bring to the table what they have. Like [trombonist] TJ Norris he used to teach so he has a lot of valuable knowledge we can tap to keep the music fresh.
Gregory Davis: There came a point when we started playing all these different events—concerts, festivals—with other people and sometimes they’d sit in. So then it was getting confirmation that what you might be able to do could fit with whatever. We never really thought we were just a brass band, you add a little of this and a little bit of that. And to see all the other brass bands make an effort to imitate us was really gratifying.
We went [in 1995] from the traditional bass drum/snare drum and those two guys—Lionel [Batiste] and Chi-lite [Jenell Marshall], who were really great—to going to kit drum. We’d been trying to do that before then. For me, personally, we were able to experiment a little more. Around that time, we had agreed to do the Black Crowes tour, and so we put some thought into making this switch. Now was the time because we knew for sure we were going to do a stage show—going from two drummers to one drummer meant now we had another spot so we experimented with keyboards [Richard Knox] and then guitar [Carl LeBlanc].
Kevin Harris: Well, recently the retirement of [trumpeter] Efrem Towns and having Kirk Joseph back—he’s added a whole lot to the band. Kirk would always use pedals and electronics on his sousaphone so it fills up the sound a lot. Right now, it’s getting the [new] trombone player in sync because he tends to go to the third part harmony and I’m already playing that. He’s doing well. He’s a gifted young man. He’s got a mind on him. The new drummer—he’s been with us three or maybe four years—is phenomenal. He’s one of the best drummers that we got so far because his timing is impeccable. Kirk and him would play little games with the horn section. They’d be flipping the time trying to throw us off. They think I don’t know about that, but I know.
Right now, the band is sort of not on our game like we should be because we should be recording albums and we’ve been a little sluggish on that. But it’s going to pick up.
Kirk Joseph: The things we’re doing now are what we expected to do when we started. I guess it’s following its course. Unfortunately, we’re all not the same unit anymore for various reasons.
Through the years, you’ve been involved with many collaborations. Do you have some favorites or were any particularly significant or challenging?
Gregory Davis: Well, certainly, that the Black Crowes put us in front of another audience. They wanted us to play Otis Redding’s’ ‘Hard to Handle.’ So we sat in with them the first night and then they started asking us to do it every night. Then they added another song and another song. That tour started out to be six weeks and by the third night they asked us if we could we do the second six weeks. So it quickly turned into a 12-week tour.
The collaboration with Elvis Costello, as far as my recollection, happened by accident. We were doing a two-week stand at Sweet Basil’s in New York. He told me that he was passing by and somebody happened to be coming out of the club so he heard the music and thought, ‘Let me go check this out.’ He said he just stood back there thinking he was going to listen to a song but ended up staying for the whole set. Afterward, he approached me and said, ‘Hey, we’re going to record and I’d like you guys to play on it.’ You hear that all the time. We had just met him so I just took it as something people always say. A couple of weeks later, he called me and asked if he should bring us all to London or if it would be better if we recorded the album in New Orleans. So he brought all of his people to New Orleans and ended up recording [Spike] here. He was really, really, really into New Orleans music. So working with him was sort of eye-opening in that he was very familiar with the music of Dave Bartholomew more than just what he had done with Fats Domino. Most of these star musicians are regular people.
Kevin Harris: The guys in Widespread Panic are real gentlemen. When we first started playing with them, they were just regular musicians but because of our jazz influences upon them, certain members started branching out. You could tell it in their solos that they were picking up some of the little things we were doing. And we sort of picked up on the jam band thing. Even though we were already jamming, we started elaborating more after that.
The biggest thing with the Black Crowes that I remember is the fact that they used to get a pinball machine and a Mortal Kombat machine [for their dressing room]—it was in their rider. It would be one side Dirty Dozen one side the Black Crowes. We would go all the way down until the last man and the last man was always Chris Robinson. It was the camaraderie with the Black Crowes—we used to go out and listen to other bands. It was a lot of fun.
Kirk Joseph: The Marvin Gaye release that we did, the 35th anniversary of What’s Going On. The overall thing was the challenge of doing Marvin Gaye. I heard the album all my life, since I was a kid, and I’ve always loved his songs and him as an artist. And that particular one, it was the things he was singing about, ‘What’s Going On,’ ‘God Is Love,’ ‘There’ll Come a Time.’ When we were doing that, it was during Katrina and most of those titles on the CD were questions that were still asked of us. For us, it was what’s going on with Katrina? That was one of the things that was very touching to me.
The whole thing of recording with Dizzy Gillespie and Branford Marsalis [on Voodoo] was huge. It was special because it was a homeboy [Marsalis] who was doing well for himself. With Dizzy it was just over the top. It was an honor. It was a blessing. I met Dizzy first when I was in Europe with [trumpeter] Wallace Davenport. He was one of my dad’s [trombonist Waldren “Frog” Joseph] friends. Dizzy came to the Glass House to check the band out and when he was leaving, I shouted out to him, ‘You have to record with us. You need to tell Chaka Khan and Stevie Wonder they have to take a back seat. We’ve got to do this.’
Roger Lewis: We collaborated with Elvis Costello—we did two records with him. It was a great experience. I think [when the Dozen played on] the album Spike, there were supposed be more vocals on it but it turned into a mostly instrumental. He said it sounded so good he decided not to put his voice on it. That’s like, wow that says a lot about the band.
Having the opportunity to play with one of the greatest jazz musicians who ever lived, Dizzy Gillespie, that was one of the highlights for me. He played on one of our CDs [Voodoo] and I didn’t even play to my full potential on that CD because I was scared to let go playing with Dizzy Gillespie—oh my goodness. He was such a beautiful human being. He really loved the band because he said it reminded him of being a young man coming up because he used to play in brass bands.
Oh yeah, we did a record with Buckwheat [Stanley ‘Buckwheat Zydeco’ Dural]. He’s from the old school so all that music was familiar. Collaborating with Buck, he fit in with our style so it was cool. It’s Louisiana music—it’s our own music.
The Dirty Dozen was once a fixture at the second line parades. Do you ever miss playing on the streets?
Kevin Harris: That brought everything together. Even though we went to school and learned to read and all of that, you don’t really know a horn until a street teaches you a horn. The street teaches you how to make a young lady shake even harder. The street teaches you how to make the old people go, ‘Yeah, baby, yeah, do that.’ The street brings out what’s in your soul.
Kirk Joseph: A little bit. It was so tribal, so unique. I’ll never forget the day when they opened Louis Armstrong Park and when we arrived on the scene, were mobbed like the Beatles. ‘Here they come!’ For them to say that still gives me chills because we were so well-received by our people. They were excited by us and we were excited to play for them. Our segment was in Congo Square and we played in the middle of the fountain.
There was quite a controversy when it appeared that the Dirty Dozen Brass Band dropped brass band from its name?
Gregory Davis: It wasn’t supposed to be that big a deal. That came about during the Black Crowes tour. On the marquee every night, they had the Black Crowes written out. And there are only so many Bs in the box. The promoters said, ‘We don’t have enough space [on the marquee] or alphabet [letters] in the box to put the Dirty Dozen Brass Band.’ So I said just put up the Dirty Dozen. I didn’t expect anybody was paying attention. Every night when I do the introduction, I say, ‘Ladies and gentlemen we are the Dirty Dozen Brass Band from New Orleans, Louisiana.’ It wasn’t necessarily us trying to set a trend or we don’t want to be a brass band, it wasn’t like that. Economically, it made more sense for us to get on stage. You can play in front of more people standing on a stage than passing in a parade.
Do you have certain tunes you enjoy playing? Do you keep adding different material?
Kirk Joseph: I like it when we play the modern stuff but I also like it when people respond to the traditional stuff because that shows that it still lives. When people become more aware of music, it doesn’t have to be outdated. It’s just music and if you enjoy it, enjoy it to its fullest.
Roger Lewis: My favorite is ‘Use Your Brain’—that might be selfish because I wrote it. I like that title. Now that I think about it, there’s a tune Efrem wrote called ‘Tomorrow.’ I like that song. The Dirty Dozen has played all different kinds of music in our 40 years from traditional jazz to avant-garde. We’ve even had classical influences with the suite that Gregory wrote and my ‘Dirty Old Man,’ that’s kind of hip-hop–ish. That’s probably what separates us from the rest of the brass bands. It’s very energetic.
Gregory Davis: It’s much harder now to come together and rehearse because 41 years later everybody is into something else. Your tastes tend to mature. Personally, right now, I’ve been going back in time a little bit and listening to modern jazz from the 1950s and ’60s—listening to a lot of Donald Byrd, Max Roach, Clifford Brown and John Coltrane. I’m just trying to figure out how to get some of that stuff in there.
Within the last two weeks or so, Kirk and TJ Norris were riding together and listening to James Brown. They showed up at the sound check and said, ‘Hey, do you mind if we try this?’ We did it at a few sound checks and boom it made onto the gig. The song was ‘The Payback.’ On top of that, we’ve started rehearsing new material, for me it was some of the Brazilian samba stuff that I’ve been influenced by.
Kevin Harris: I like Efrem’s tune, ‘Tomorrow,’ it was a monster, it still is a monster. He didn’t write any tunes until like three years ago, it’s phenomenal. That was his first tune and all of us had five or six tunes. We do it a lot differently than the original—we added a lot more church feeling, hallelujah and all those things.
The main thing is the rhythm. It’s the rhythms that we put to a regular tune. We’d put those New Orleans beats to it and it would change the whole tune. It usually wakes it up a lot. Like Dizzy told us, the rhythms we put on ‘Bongo Beep’ and ‘Moose the Mooche’ made those tunes uniquely ours.
The first thing we did when we first got the band together was everybody brought everything. We were playing Weather Report; we brought ‘Night Train’ to the street. The old guys would tell us, “That ain’t no New Orleans music.” No, it’s music. The whole idea of the Dirty Dozen was to play music—all kinds, all kinds.
Kirk Joseph: ‘Feet Can’t Fail Me Now’ stems from the bass line and also the chant that I created. ‘Snowball’ was a collaboration of things. Actually a lot of them were collaborations. Gregory and I went to Andrew J. Bell [high school] at different times so the song ‘Voodoo’ was a concert piece that we played. So one day, I asked the drummers to keep the street beat. So then I asked Gregory ‘Do you remember “Voodoo”?’ So there it was.
Four of the members of the Dirty Dozen sing. That’s quite a few for a horn-heavy band. How does that work?
Kevin Harris: In my later years, I forget the words [laughs]. When Efrem was singing, he’d forget them too but he’d just make up anything—he’d just change the whole word thing. I let the other guys sing and I do the background. Because of the fact that they are not singers, if you put the right background against them they sound like they’re singers. I always say I make you guys sound great. On some songs I might switch from bass to falsetto to second tenor—all three parts—to add a little color in it. Singing can be dangerous—I do it to help the band.
Do you have some favorite moments with the Dirty Dozen you’d like to share?
Roger Lewis: I do have a special moment. It was the perfect gig that never was recorded. We did a gig with the Five Blind Boys. I don’t remember exactly where it was. It was a beautiful place that was acoustically built and the sound was incredible. This was a gig when everybody was on the same page. Every now and then you get 8, 10, 12 or 13 minds all locked in with no interference. That particular night, it looked like everybody made a connection with a power greater than themself.
Gregory Davis: I truly, truly used to enjoy using my plunger. I used to enjoy going into the audience and charming the young ladies with my plunger. The ones that I enjoyed the most were the ladies that were prim, proper and stiff. It was almost like a snake charmer. I would play to them and play to their bodies. I would pause and see if they were going to smile or react. I eventually would get them.
Kirk Joseph: It was fun doing the 20th anniversary and having so many guests—it was special. All those elements that we’ve all considered from day one, whether there was going to be a guitar or another bass were there. Actually, our first recording, ‘Blackbird Special,’ did have those things on it.
Kevin Harris: The island shows—Hawaii, Curacao—bring the most memories because of the setting. The people have a different way of moving—very sultry and sexy, you know, the girls. We did one show in Japan and it was so hot that when I got back to my room and looked at myself in the mirror, I was actually a shade darker. I was all burnt up.
In Jackson, Mississippi we were playing for Millsaps College—a Catholic college mostly for women. We had 900 women and 100 men at the show. So we asked for a couple of girls to come up [on stage] and 30 of them came up. We were groped, we were spanked. I mean they misused us. That show was probably one of the wildest. I have never been so abused by women in my life and I loved every minute of it.
What’s the best thing about playing with the Dirty Dozen?
Kevin Harris: Just the things we’ve seen all over the world—the travel. One spot in the northern island of Japan, the landscape was like a Jules Verne movie. It was all lush vegetation with dormant volcanoes—about six or seven of them—as far as the eye could see. I said, ‘Look out, there’s a pterodactyl!
Roger Lewis: I get a whole lot of solos [laughs]. In most bands, baritone players don’t get no solos. When I was in Fats Domino’s band, when I started in 1971, I got one solo and that was on ‘Blue Monday.’ And after a few years, I started complaining so I got another solo on ‘Shake, Rattle and Roll’ and so now I got two solos.
In the Dirty Dozen, the baritone plays parts that a trumpet player would normally play. That’s the way that instrument functions—it can function as a lead instrument, a solo instrument and a background instrument. The baritone is a free agent. Really, if you think about it, the difference between our brass band and every other brass band is that we have a baritone. Actually, the baritone player, the sousaphone and the drums play more than the horns. The baritone player don’t stop—he’s busy.
When I play in Delfeayo’s band [trombonist Delfeayo Marsalis’ Uptown Jazz Orchestra] and we play traditional music, I play pretty much like I do with the Dirty Dozen. I play a bass line along with the bass player. I’m like the anchor. In New Orleans, we’re a little different. We’re unique down here. It ain’t so much the notes you play, it’s the feeling that you’re projecting. It’s the spirit.
FQFIQ: Thursday, April 12, Abita Beer Stage, 5:20p